I’ve said it to myself often enough. Students over the years have said that to me countless times. That fear of failure often happens when it is time to set goals or start a new project.
“It is wise to make a plan,” says creativity coach, Eric Maisel, author of Coaching the Artist Within. “However, since we make so many resolutions and break them, set so many goals and fall short of realizing them, and create so many plans without following through on them, we become reluctant to plan. We prefer not to plan so as not to disappoint ourselves one more time.”
I’m at that point this week, looking at two novels I worked on last year that I simply couldn’t make “work.” I started them over several times, trying different angles, but no luck. I still like the ideas a lot, but I find myself leery of making one more stab at them. I’m afraid of wasting my writing time and having nothing to show for it. I’m more than leery. I’m stuck.
One of Maisel’s solutions is to make a simple plan. He says to leave out the complexities that just make things harder. His idea of a simple plan is: I will try to write every day. (No rules or details, no set number of pages, no word count, etc.) Or even better, I plan to write today. But is that enough? Not for me.
A Simple Plan
A simple plan is well and good, but getting started is still the hardest part (for me anyway) when facing a project where fear of failure is high. (It doesn’t have to be writing the Great American Novel either. It can simply be a project I’ve “failed” on before.)
We want to change an action here—get started and keep going. It’s often not as simple as “just do it!” though. We have to back up and change the fearful emotion that drives the writer’s block and procrastination. And to do that we have to back up and change the thought that creates the emotion.
Sometimes changing your thoughts is enough to get you going. But repeating “thoughts” or “affirmations” that some articles suggest (like “I am the country’s best writer, and agents are fighting to represent me”) are just absurd to me. My brain, anyway, kicks something like that right back out. I simply don’t believe it. If I did, I wouldn’t be stuck.
What’s the Answer?
We need to back up one additional step. Your automatic thoughts come from your beliefs about yourself as a writer. The beliefs need to change before you will think healthy thoughts, that flow into healthy writing emotions, and then produce good actions (writing). I think beliefs need to be true, though, for them to be of immediate use to you.
If you are believing a pack of lies (like “I’ll never write any better” and “You have to know someone in publishing to sell a novel”) then start with the lies you are believing and replace them with truth. One good source for this is another of Maisel’s books, Write Mind: 299 Things Writers Should Never Say to Themselves (and What They Should Say Instead).
Facing a blank page or facing a revision can cause fear. We may not know what to do, or we may know what needs to be done, yet fear that we don’t have the skill to pull it off. When facing something fearful, the thoughts that automatically spring forth have to do with what we believe about staying safe and getting our needs met.
As I look at the novels I want to tackle again this year, the automatic thoughts that spring to mind include: “I’ve already wasted months of writing time on these novels, so why waste more?” and “I need to be doing work-for-hire projects instead and make money during my writing time” and “I don’t want to spend months on something just to fail again” and “I’ll never get this novel done” and “This project is above my skill level, and I’ll never be that good.”
All those thoughts have to do with staying safe (I don’t want to fail again) and getting needs met (income from writing and feeling like the writing will matter.)
Writer’s Block Smashed: Replace Lies with Truth
Last week I made a long list of truths to replace my automatic thoughts (those “lies in disguise.”) Some of them are faith-based which wouldn’t maybe apply to everyone. But some of them apply to all writers. (I’ll list a few below.) Just the act of writing down these truths and re-reading them before my writing time in the morning is already changing my ability to tackle the first novel.
My fifty or so new truths include:
- I can have my novel written in a year. (vs. “I’ll never get this novel done.”)
- Writing is at the top of my To-Do list. (vs. “I’m too busy to write.”)
- I learn to write better by writing, and daily if possible. (vs. “I’ll never be good enough to write this book.”)
- Since I want to increase my output, I’m going to institute a new writing routine. (vs. “People make too many demands so I never have time to write.”)
- I can write anywhere and under any conditions. (vs. “I can’t write unless I have hours of quiet time alone.”)
- I don’t need to read another book on writing first—I need to write! (vs. “There must be a magic key out there, and I’ll keep buying writing books until I find it.”)
As I’ve said countless times here, and in both Writer’s First Aid and the new More Writer’s First Aid, we’re all in this together. Writers have always dealt with these issues. But instead of feeling the fear and inadequacy (and then buying a box of Krispie Kremes and turning on the TV), take the time to figure out what lies you are believing about your writing.
Replace them with truth—and see how that changes your emotions and subsequent action. You’ll write more. You’ll write better. You’ll enjoy your daily writing time. Publication will most likely eventually follow, but it will become less important than your daily experience of enjoying the writing.
Just for reference, here are the Eric Maisel books on my own writing shelf that I have found very helpful over the years: